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Editorial: Federal debt shoved to background again

Six years ago, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo was one of the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators looking for ways to reduce the nation’s growing debt. Recently, he voted for tax cuts that will exacerbate the problem.

To be fair, the vast majority of politicians on both sides of the aisle have continually ignored the issue, but it is disappointing to see Crapo capitulate when he used to say all the right things.

In 2011, we praised his leadership, noting it would take difficult choices that included increasing revenue and cutting spending. After one senator pulled out of the process, Crapo reaffirmed his commitment, saying the threat posed by the debt is “so big, so real, so close” that the panel cannot cease its efforts.

As a framework for its discussions, the group used the work of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, which was created by President Barack Obama, to find a way to overhaul the way the federal government collects and spends tax dollars.

That panel was led by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles, a Democrat. It came up with a plan that would touch all areas of government, including Social Security, Medicare and defense. It concluded that the only path to budget sanity would be to cut spending and increase taxes. For every new dollar raised, two dollars of spending would be cut.

The plan would’ve slashed the debt by $4 trillion and provided long-term stabilization. But under the commission’s rules, 14 of 18 members needed to vote yes. Only 11 did so, with Sen. Crapo being one of them.

It was a courageous vote, but six years later the problem remains unaddressed. Recently, Simpson and Bowles teamed up on a Washington Post Op-Ed calling the tax cuts plans in the House and Senate irresponsible.

“Unfortunately, the tax plan currently under discussion in Congress ignores nearly all the hard choices we proposed – incorporating only the ‘goodies,’ ” they wrote.

Sen. Crapo disagrees, saying the duo underestimate the revenue increase that would come from economic growth. But even a “dynamic scoring” analysis that accounts for such growth found that debt would grow by $1 trillion.

Even before the House and Senate have reconciled the two bills, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Republicans would take aim at entitlement reform in 2018. That’s a needed step, but cutting taxes beforehand makes it more difficult – politically and mathematically – to achieve long-term debt reduction.

Like the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Gang of Six was unable to move the needle. The subsequent “grand bargain” negotiated between President Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner fell through. Automatic budget cuts through the crude tool of sequestration were adopted in 2013; nonetheless, the debt has continued to grow. It’s projected to be 99 percent of GDP by 2027.

It’s going to take both tax increases and spending cuts to rein in the debt. All programs must be on the table. As the Gang of Six acknowledged in 2011, there is no easy way out.


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